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Marcus O’Sullivan has seen it all at the Penn Relays, but pressure on Villanova doesn’t change

The former Wildcats star and Irish Olympian is in his 21st year as the team's head coach but the expectations are still immense. "There's no such thing as second, third. It’s either you win or you lose," he said.

Only three men in history have run 100 or more sub-4-minute miles. Villanova track coach Marcus O'Sullivan is one of them, with 101.
Only three men in history have run 100 or more sub-4-minute miles. Villanova track coach Marcus O'Sullivan is one of them, with 101.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Marcus O’Sullivan has been involved with the Penn Relays for more than 30 years, the first four as a world-class runner for Villanova and the last 21 as coach of the Wildcats men’s track and field team. The time in between, he competed in the annual Thursday night Olympic Development 5,000 meters.

He likes to talk about the time when he was pursuing his MBA at Villanova and asked to be excused from class early so he could drive from the Main Line to Franklin Field to hit the starting line on time for the 5,000.

“This was pre-security days,” O’Sullivan, 57, recalled last week. “I pulled up right between the Palestra and the stadium, a place where now cars can’t go. I actually changed in the car, ran around the streets to warm up, and jumped right in. And I did win. Those were fun days.”

Fun isn’t a word that O’Sullivan uses liberally when speaking about the Penn Relays, which will begin its three-day ride Thursday. The expectations are high for Villanova runners, who have 136 combined Championship of America men’s and women’s relay titles, almost double the 70 won by the men and women of second-place Louisiana State.

The ‘Nova men have won 94. Two of them came last year in the distance medley and 4-by-mile relays, the sixth and seventh victory wheels — and first carnival double — for an O’Sullivan-coached team. Yes, he was smiling then, but this is another year.

“I look at Penn as being a double-edged sword,” he said. “It’s great if you win. It’s not so good if you don’t. You’re a Villanovan. It’s unfortunate in many ways, but there’s no such thing as second, third. It’s either you win or you lose. It’s one of the few events where you look at track and field in that frame.

“I always say it’s the calling card for whether you’ve done your work during the year. I learned it the hard way because my junior year in college, we lost everything. I walked out of the stadium feeling incredibly dejected and just realized that I hadn’t been prepared, only to come back a year later and win and then go out and make an Olympic team that summer.

“So it’s a great reality check, and amidst all of that, you can still have great enjoyment and great entertainment. But the hard fact of it is, particularly if you’re a Villanovan, there’s a lot more in terms of what it means to you. Every year at Penn, I just try to have a team that’s going to be competitive. If you’re competitive and you go out there and give it a shot, then I think we’ll be OK, and I can live with that.”

O’Sullivan bounced back from 1983, the year when the Wildcats lost every race they entered, and led them to wins the following year in the 4-by-mile and 4x800, his fifth and sixth watches. In the former race, he spotted Arkansas’ Paul Donovan a 50-yard lead going into the anchor leg and overtook him.

O’Sullivan experienced pressure during his competitive career, making four Olympic teams and several World Championship squads representing his native Ireland. He is one of three men who have achieved 100 sub-4-minute miles, doing it 101 times, the last in 1998 at age 36.

So when it comes to the Penn Relays, O’Sullivan tries to keep things as stress-free as possible. The carnival is not an exam you can cram for; it’s the product of what he calls “an accumulation of time, energy, preparation that has taken place over a year.”

The race-day routine begins on the train that O’Sullivan and his athletes ride to West Philadelphia, followed by a walk to Franklin Field, some free time, and then the warmup.

“You keep them calm,” he said. “There’s not an official warmup area. The timeliness and the stress of it, I think, is what you just try to alleviate as much as possible. Usually, you have a coach watching the schedule inside. We have a coach down by the [waiting] pen and we have a coach in the warmup area, so we’re talking to each other on cell phones.

“We don’t want to bring the athletes in too early. We don’t want to bring them in too late and stress them out even more. So it’s pretty much a time-crunch logistics nightmare you learn as you go through it. It’s kind of part of the process. It can be to your advantage if you’re paying attention to it.”

Another feature of Penn Relays weekend for O’Sullivan and women’s coach Gina Procaccio is a breakfast the program hosts on Saturday morning. It will honor the 40th anniversary of the first Championship of America title won by the Villanova women, the 1979 4x800 relay.

The Wildcats men will run in Friday’s distance medley and Saturday’s 4-by-mile. As for the 4x800 later Saturday, O’Sullivan said it’s a case of, “Let’s see where we are on Saturday and keep our fingers crossed.” Senior Casey Comber (Hatboro-Horsham) anchored both of the Cats’ winning relays last year.

O’Sullivan hopes his athletes get to experience the same thrill they had last year.

“Last year, they experience the two wins and they’re in the press conference and they start to realize, ‘Wow, this is a big deal,’” he said. “I think when you experience it for the first time and you’re lucky to be on one of the winning teams, it’s a very unique experience that lasts and resonates with you for the rest of your life.”